April 1, 2020

Roth and Ramberg- About Photography VIII

(Dale Roth is one half of the photography duo, Roth and Ramberg. As writing is not his strong suit, he has asked his teenage son to correct his lack of punctuation and when possible, add in big words. However, Dale does know how to do a perfect scheimpflug.)

Lessons learned

If you’ve been reading along, you know that Diane Arbus has been a major influence on my photography.

American photographer Diane Arbus is famous for her poignant portraits of individuals on the margins of society, such as street people, transvestites, nudists, and carnival performers. Arbus’s work is highly controversial. While looking at her photos, some viewers find an overwhelming sense of compassion, while others find her images to be bizarre and disturbing. Her practice challenged established conventions, dictating the distance between photographer and subject, which resulted in the raw psychological intensity that characterizes her photographic portraiture. What struck me about her photography was how different it was from anything else I had seen. Her subject matter was offbeat and the composition and lighting, as well as her subjects weren’t perfect. 

Soon after I got our of photography school, I started assisting other photographers, which is just another form of education. The diploma I received in photography school allowed me the opportunity to work as an assistant and that was also a form of an eduction. A few years after that we started Roth and Ramberg Photography and have been moving forward ever since. It was probably 3 or 4 years into our career when we got a phone call from a client working for the health department of provincial government, who asked us to take photos at a place called the Michener Centre in Alberta. The Michener Centre, to be blunt, was basically the last of the old school insane asylums. It was where people were sent who were unable to look after themselves. We were living in a transitional time in society as we were moving away from these places and trying to incorporate those individuals into group homes or some type of foster care. During our conversation, our client told us about the Michener Centre and how every Halloween they set up a haunted house and the residents dressed up in various costumes. She said this might make for interesting photos. As most photographers would say, we said YES! However, at this point I thought to myself, “This is kind of messed up.” Mental patients dressing up for Halloween and participating in a haunted house seemed a bit disturbing, but the photographer in me was eager to find out and document.

A few weeks later, I found myself driving down the highway with my assistant as we headed for the Centre. Although the Centre was composed of a number of characterless and nondescript buildings, we managed to find our way inside one of them. It seemed deserted. There was no front reception or anything. Eventually, we wandered into a gymnasium. A few people were milling around inside. I was carrying my camera bag. One man, who seemed to be about 6”2 and weigh 300lbs, wandered over to me and grabbed my camera. He didn’t say a word and I could tell he wasn’t any employee so I really didn’t want to let go. He tugged a little harder and it wasn’t until I heard a voice calling, “It’s okay, he just wants to help,” then I let go. The man took my bag and marched to the front with it. As my assistant and I caught up with some of the rest of the gear, the man came over to me, leaned in and I managed to turn my cheek just in time as he gave me a giant kiss. What a welcome!

Soon some staff members showed up and we began our tour of the Halloween setup. To be honest, I had no idea what I was in for. As I looked around I noticed a lot of the residents were quite disfigured, both their bodies and faces. A few were in wheelchairs, and a very small few seemed to have Down’s Syndrome. It was an interesting initiation to say the least. 

The first stop of the tour was in another large room. The overhead lights were out and instead, neon lights and signs and glow in the dark paint illuminated the room. Inside the room there were carnival games, like ring toss. One of the first photos I took was of someone in a wheel chair in front of a sign that said, “Oddball Game.” 

“This is fucked up,” I thought. Quickly moving thru that area, we soon we made our way to the haunted house. It was quite elaborate and well done with beautiful lighting and the usual scary looking stuff. What I didn’t expect was the residents were an active part of it. There was an old disfigured woman with grey hair sitting at a piano playing horror music, the look of realization I must have had when she turned and looked at me....realizing this was a real person. I raised up my camera and just took photos almost by instinct. 

There were people jumping out at me wearing barely a costume, but their faces and disfigurements were real. I really didn’t know what to think. At the end of the haunted house, one of the residents dressed in a hockey mask ran out and started up a real chainsaw. To this day, I’m not sure whether it was working or just the motor made sounds.The experience made me wonder if these people were willing participants? Do they have a grasp on what they are doing? Are they being exploited? 

We were told there was a dance that evening, so I decided to set up a white background and shoot individual portraits of whoever wanted a photo. Not sure who would want it, soon a lineup formed The music was starting and I glanced around the room. There were staff and residents dressed in a variety of Halloween costumes. The overall scene was surreal, I could attempt to describe it but I would never do it justice. 

I remember half way through taking photographs of people, The Village People’s, “YMCA,” started to blare through the speakers. I raised my arm up to every letter while pressing the shutter in between. The room was hopping and people were dancing and laughing. I felt like the DJ, everyone watching me as I continued to take photos. I was trying to get people to smile, not knowing if they understood what I was doing. Some had emotions, others like the Grim Reaper, just stood and stared down the camera. I’m glad I was focused on taking photos, as I didn’t have time to think about the morality of the situation. 

Did the guy really want to dress up as a woman in a wig? Where did he get the wig and the dress? Were the staff dressing these people up? Did these people have a say in the matter? I’ve gotta hand it to them, the costumes were stellar. 

The best costume was worn by a guy in a wheelchair. His head was poking through a table, which was covered with a tablecloth and a plate. His head became the base of a lamp and he had a lampshade on top. As I was taking his photo, he was smiling from ear to ear with a mouth full of 3 or 4 teeth. Unbelievable.

The majority of people we photographed had a twinkle in their eye, or a big smile on their face. It did come across to me as they were genuinely having fun, and so was I!

Developing the black & white film, I began to look at each person and the expression on their faces. I realized they were having fun. They had a look of happiness, some life in their eyes.

It was my own ignorance or prejudice that made me think this was somehow wrong? My initial thoughts about it being exploitive and messed up were starting to evolve.

Why can’t people dress up and enjoy Halloween no matter who they are or what they look like? It was me who was unable to handle it. It was me who couldn’t get over my judgement of them, They were all having fun. In the end even I was having fun taking photos. My thought patterned changed and perhaps this was a great way to educate people, to have an exhibit of the the photos with a little writing underneath that talked about how messed up this all was initially but how in the end it changed my way of thinking.